You Can’t Be a Leader if Nobody’s Willing to Follow You

Michelle DiTondoSeason 5Episode 2


Michelle DiTondo is a visionary leader in her field and emphasizes the importance of accepting professional feedback by highlighting experiences and insights from her career. She shares the importance of embracing feedback, how to intentionally work towards improvement, and the importance of humility in leadership.


Michelle DiTondo

Michelle DiTondo


Michelle DiTondo, is a visionary leader in organizational transformation, a principal at Avion Consulting and former CHRO of a Fortune 300 company. With a remarkable history of leading a culture and organizational shift for 88,000 employees, Michelle brings a profound understanding of how culture fortifies an organization’s brand and strategy. Her dedication to driving transformational change and fostering inclusive workplaces has made significant impacts across various industries. At Avion Consulting, Michelle and her team of leadership development professionals are committed to unlocking human potential, offering customized solutions to enhance both people and business performance.


Michelle DiTondo (00:01):
You can't be a leader if nobody's willing to follow you. So, you know, you have to make a choice to either change or to not be a very effective leader if the feedback that you get is part of what's holding back your team, reaching their full potential.
Troy Blaser (00:23):
Hello everyone. Welcome to Simply Feedback the podcast brought to you by Learning Bridge. I'm your host, Troy Blaser. I'm happy to have you along with us today. I am excited about our guest on today's episode. Let me just give a quick introduction. Our guest today is Michelle DiTondo, who is a visionary leader in organizational transformation. Michelle is a principal at Avion Consulting and a former CHRO of a Fortune 300 company with a remarkable history of leading a culture and organizational shift for 88,000 employees. Michelle brings a profound understanding of how culture fortifies an organization's brand and strategy. Her dedication to driving transformational change and fostering inclusive workplaces has made significant impacts across various industries. At Avion Consulting, Michelle and her team of leadership development professionals are committed to unlocking human potential, offering customized solutions to enhance both people, and business performance. Michelle, welcome to Simply Feedback today. It's so great to have you with us for this episode.
Michelle DiTondo (01:31):
Thank you. Thank you Troy for having me today. Super excited to just exchange some ideas.
Troy Blaser (01:36):
Yeah, well, I'm looking forward to it. You know, I read through your bio just now to kind of introduce you, but I wonder it would probably help us all get to know you a little bit better if you could share a time when somebody gave you some feedback and maybe some feedback that had an impact on your life or marked a turning point in your career, something along those lines.
Michelle DiTondo (01:55):
Sure. There's probably actually two at different points in my career. So I've told this story many, many times. Early on in my career when I worked for American Express in my mid to late twenties, I had a woman who I would consider to be probably my first and most impactful mentor. She was the head of HR for the group that I worked in American Express, and I was an HR generalist at the time. She was a senior HR leader and would frequently send me in her place to meetings in New York City with all the other heads of HR and the first time she did that, you know, I, it's a lot of pressure, stress. I was gonna be with these people who were older than I was, who was more tenured than I was. And I think she could sense that I was lacking in confidence and a little tentative.
Michelle DiTondo (02:44):
And so, you know, I always remember this one sentence that she told me because she could see how nervous I was and how much pressure I was feeling, but she said, I want you to keep in mind that everyone in that room will have more experience than you. Which she said, no one in the room is going to be smarter than you. And I've always taken that into situations where imposter syndrome was kind of entering my head and I felt like I didn't deserve to be in the room. That was one of, I think, the most impactful pieces of feedback that I had. I think later in my career, I had an executive coach when I was the CHRO. At MGM, which I believe in regular coaching throughout a career. I think having external advice and having candid feedback that someone can collect for you is always helpful.
Michelle DiTondo (03:35):
For growth and development. And I think you have different responsibilities at each level. So an executive coach, well into my tenure as a CHRO, and she'd done interviews with my staff and with my colleagues and with my leadership. And you know, one of the pieces of feedback that she shared that I really wish would've been earlier in my career was that when I'm in conversations with others, that that time was all about them and for them and not for me. And I think before that, I'd always thought of one-on-ones as a time because we had tons of things going on, and I had pretty senior level HR people who were leading big initiatives. And so I always thought of the one-on-one time was a time for them to update me on what was going on with the projects that they were leading. And I think that piece of feedback shifted my thinking to, you know, that time was a time for me to talk about what they were really struggling with and how I might be able to help them versus them reporting out to me. And again, probably later in my career than I wished it would've been, but at least I got that feedback. And I, I think it was impactful in how I thought about my role and how I spent my time with the people that reported to me.
Troy Blaser (04:49):
I like that it, it makes me stop and think, okay, how am I doing as I have one-on-ones, you know, with the people that, that I'm supervising, or even the one-on-ones with the people that I'm reporting up to. You know, how am I spending that time? What, what is the most useful way to spend it? So that's important reminder. And I also really liked your first story because it makes me think of, you know, the mentors that I had early on in my own career as well. I think for many people it's easy to sort of look back and remember that certain manager or, you know, that peer or whatever that was had a big influence early on.
Michelle DiTondo (05:27):
Yeah. I credit her for really being the reason I was able to get to a CHRO role in my career, because early on, she, and this, it was just not me. It was the many of others who were on her team. She stretched us to a point of extreme discomfort. But I think that we grew significantly working for her. And, you know, and she was always there to help us and support us and have our back, but really stretched us. And, you know, I think developmentally, like she put her own reputation on the line by sending us in her place, but then, you know, helped to prepare us so that we would be successful.
Troy Blaser (06:09):
Yeah. Your two stories together sort of point out the contrast in the kinds of feedback that we receive at different stages of our career too. So obviously, I mean, early in a career you're getting feedback from a mentor. You're, you know, you're learning to have that confidence and different strategies to be able to have that confidence in the room. And then later on when you're a CHRO, you're getting, you've got an executive coach who's helping to gather that feedback because frankly, it can be challenging to offer frank feedback to someone in that position. Right. But it's, it's so important.
Michelle DiTondo (06:48):
Troy Blaser (06:48):
So you have to kind of think about it in a different way than when you're a brand new employee starting out and there's managers all around that are ready to offer advice. Right.
Michelle DiTondo (06:57):
And we often, at Avion, we coach leaders who are in their first, you know, one or two executive roles. And I think the hard thing to understand is how much the expectations of you change at each level in the organization. So, you know, my two stories at the beginning was all about have the confidence, give your point of view and talk. And towards the end of my career, it was ask questions and listen more. And don't always be the first to talk and jump in. But you know, as you become more senior, you can impact others much more significantly than you even realize because, you know, for all, as you spend time in your career, 20 years can seem like two years. And you don't realize the impact that you have on others when you're changing levels and roles in an organization.
Troy Blaser (07:47):
Yeah. Yeah. I agree. The, it's interesting you talk about the work that you do at Avion, and obviously you have your own unique background as you work at Avion and you work with different clients, different organizations. Can you tell us about a common kind of problem that you help solve for your clients?
Michelle DiTondo (08:07):
I mean, I, you know, we do a couple of different things. We do leadership development, we do coaching, we do culture transformation, a variety of different things that are all related to leadership and employee engagement. I think that leadership skills, development of leadership skills and how to do that is common across all industries, all organizations. And, you know, I think at all levels in the organization, it's something that as when I worked internally as a CHRO, we always struggled with in the organizations I worked in, and, you know, with our clients, this is the reason why we exist, is to help leaders drive performance in organizations. It's all about how do we get the most we can from those who are on our teams, how can they be their best selves and deliver the best performance day to day? And inevitably the way to do that gets down to their leaders and how their leaders behave and how their leaders support them to, to deliver on performance objectives.
Troy Blaser (09:15):
It's funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. I'll just share a brief story of my own. Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I, like many young men in those times, I was a boy scout and ended up going to what they called junior leadership training for a week, where, you know, I was 14 years old and it was a week we were camping up in the mountains. We learned, I think, 12 specific leadership skills as part of this Boy Scout camp. And I, I've thought about that a lot over the years because I think what I thought was how many people grow up and are never taught leadership skills in particular. You know, I went to college, graduated in computer science, but nowhere along the way was, was I trained on here's how to be a leader in your field of computer science. Right. It was all about programming and building databases and, and software and things like that. You talked about how important it is the leaders are in an organization and the skills that those leaders have. And maybe that's easy to miss for some organizations and for some leaders to, to focus specifically on the leadership skills. And so it sounds like that's something that you can bring into an organization.
Michelle DiTondo (10:24):
I think, I think every organization or leader would agree with the importance of leadership. It's kind of like that, you know, it's common sense, it makes sense, but oftentimes isn't common when you just get to execution day to day. Um, you know, uh, consistency in how we lead people being able to maintain a strategy or path when we get into times of stress. So I think everyone believes it, it doesn't always ring true when we're in our day-to-day, roles and, and performing day-to-day.
Troy Blaser (11:05):
Yeah. So when you have an engagement with an organization, and maybe it is to, to help with their leadership skills to help their leaders, what changes do you get to observe in an organization from, you know, before the engagement starts, through the engagement to the end of it? What, what are some of the things that you see the, the solutions that you see that come into play?
Michelle DiTondo (11:28):
You know, I, I think that we're pretty customized in our approach. I think we have a standard process that we follow most frequently. Typically with an assessment of where you are now and where you want to be, where, whether that's individually as a leader or as a team or an organization where you are today and where do you want to be. And then, you know, once you kind of identify what that gap is, the interventions or the solutions to get you from A to B can be different. So, you know, it can be facilitation of team dynamics, it can be some assessments that we use to give feedback to leaders or some personality assessments. It can be, uh, coaching just one senior leader on how they develop their team. So the solutions might be different, but I think, you know, we're, we've seen and we have measured success is when a leader has a coach and they have clarity around where they are today, their strengths, development areas, what they want to achieve from a business strategy standpoint, you know, what's gonna hold them back and stand in their way and what's gonna help them get to point B.
Michelle DiTondo (12:41):
Once they have clarity around that, then if they're willing to grow and to change, and regardless of the level and their tenure and how long they've been a leader, if they're willing to really accept feedback and to take typically really small actions, then, you know, we see significant change both in how they're perceived as leaders, as well as the results that their teams can deliver.
Troy Blaser (13:08):
Hmm. I like that. So if I'm a leader in an organization somewhere kind of looking around, maybe I'm wondering to myself, do I need some outside assistance? Or how, how is my organization doing with leadership in general? Are there ways for someone to know kind of where, where they're at and say, well, that's not where I want to be. What are some signs, I guess, that they ought to bring in some help from outside?
Michelle DiTondo (13:34):
I mean, typically we, you know, people connect with us if they have, and I, I don't necessarily want to say a problem to solve because sometimes it's, we're growing too fast, which isn't necessarily a problem. But how do we maintain our values and our beliefs and our culture while we grow? But typically people will come to us because they want to improve performance. You know, that's our firm's belief is how do we improve performance in organizations? How do we get organizations to perform better through people? And our clients come to us because they either know that they can do more or they need to do more, or they know that to maintain their current performance levels, they're gonna have to make some type of change. So they come to us because they recognize that they can perform better than they're currently performing today.
Troy Blaser (14:24):
Hmm. I, I liked what you said a minute ago. You talked about if they're willing to change, then it's typically just a few small adjustments. Do you run into leaders who aren't willing to change?
Michelle DiTondo (14:36):
Of course. I mean, you know, I think that especially the more senior you get in the organization when you've been rewarded for your, you know, being who you are, um, oftentimes in spite of who you are, but people don't get to senior levels without being successful in achieving regardless of how they did that in an organization. And so, you know, there's some reluctance, I think, especially the more tenure you get in your career and at certain levels we mostly deal with executives. And so once you get to a certain level, recognizing that there's a need for change can be hard. And oftentimes, you know, people can become defensive when they first hear feedback. I, you know, I've been in that position if I've gotten really tough feedback to try to explain why that was or why that person was giving that feedback. And, you know, we hear all the same things probably we've thought about in our career, said we hear from their common responses to really constructive feedback. And so, you know, there is resistance. It's much harder because during the time of engagement, you could spend most of your time just trying to get someone to recognize that, you know, perception is reality. And, you know, I've told people before I'm like, you can't be a leader if nobody's willing to follow you. So, you know, you have to make a choice to either change or to not be a very effective leader if the feedback that you get is part of what's holding back your team, reaching their full potential.
Troy Blaser (16:10):
That makes sense. So I've been at Learning Bridge for a long time, over 20 years now. What are some ways that I can guard against that sort of fixed mindset of, well, it's worked so far, so I probably don't need to change anything right now. What are some ways that I can be open to the idea that maybe some change is needed?
Michelle DiTondo (16:29):
I mean, I'm, I'm a believer in, I've always been a part of internally and organizations are externally just getting consistent feedback on your performance, which is why when I was in a c-level seat, I had a coach. Why I believe that it is helpful for people to have an external coach in organizations, just because I think you could be more candid if someone is external with what you're thinking and what you're struggling with. So almost every organization that I've worked into has had feedback, either 360 feedback for leaders in roles as well as organizational feedback through employee surveys. I think having that as a regular part of your process and having leaders reflect on this is what I'm hearing, what I'm willing to do this year, I think helps to develop that growth mindset. If you're just in a continuous cycle of this time of the year, we get feedback and then, you know, next month I have to think about what I'm gonna do to grow and develop. It's, I think, much less likely that you'll be in a regular cycle of defensiveness especially if you hear the same feedback over and over.
Troy Blaser (17:38):
I like that. Well, talking about people receiving feedback and the the times you've been able to engage with a client, I wonder if there's a specific experience or a time when you have been able to see feedback cause a point of inflection in somebody's career or in their life. Is there a story there that you could share with us?
Michelle DiTondo (17:57):
I'll share a story that the leader that I reported to at MGM, who's still a friend of mine, who I greatly respect, we were very close partners, and I, I would say almost opposites if you think about any type of assessment personality or thought process. We were, his background was a CFO and I'd always been in HR, but I think collectively we made really good decisions because we challenged each other. He always told the story and he's, he shared it many times publicly, so I don't feel uncomfortable sharing it. Early on in his, um, in his CFO career, so he was already in a senior level role, but not at the corporate level. He was one of our, the business unit, you know, CFOs and brilliant when it comes to operations and detail, and was someone that just knows a lot about everything.
Michelle DiTondo (18:50):
And I think really helped to create structure and make sure that the business made thorough, thoughtful decisions. So what his feedback was around, though, was on how he communicated with people, especially when he was under stress. If he were under stress or if he was upset about something, he tended to have a reaction that frightened people. I mean, he would raise his voice, his anger would be visible. And at the time, the, who would become our CEO and our chairman was his, his leader at the time and told him they were, they were good friends and he was invested in his career. And he told him, he said, this is gonna hold you back. And he said, you will not move forward in this company if you aren't able to change, you know, how you communicate and how you make people feel.
Michelle DiTondo (19:39):
And he worked on it really intently. And, you know, he gave permission to people like me who were, you know, around him regularly to let him know if he, you know, fell off the wagon or if he had an impact on someone that he didn't intend to. And, you know, when those times did happen, he would apologize and take a step back or apologize in public if he found himself, you know, starting to fall back on some of those old behaviors. But I think his leader who took the time to tell him that probably was responsible for his career, and him becoming a chief operating officer of, you know, fortune 300 company.
Troy Blaser (20:24):
Wow, that is a major change, uh, or a major success for a small change.
Michelle DiTondo (20:30):
And it, you know, it stayed top of mind for him. I think probably to this day it's top of mind for him as the one thing that he needs to work on and be aware of as a leader. And he's very self-aware and intentional about it. And because one leader took the time to say, this is gonna stand in your way of where you want to go if you can't fix it. You know, typical case, and we see this all the time in organizations, high technical performer that needed to improve a leadership, you know, interpersonal type of skill and, you know, I think the courage of a leader to say, you know, you probably won't move ahead if you don't fix this, even though you're brilliant technically, I think, you know, had a huge impact on his career.
Troy Blaser (21:17):
Interesting. An impact on his career, probably also an impact on his personal life. Maybe we'll just, we'll just talk about this question. As you think about our audience of HR professionals, others kind of in the same realm that you are working in consulting in. And you know, we're not asking you to give away your secret sauce necessarily, but are there some things that you could share with someone in a similar situation as you?
Michelle DiTondo (21:42):
I, you know, throughout I think the course of my career, especially in the CHRO role, and reinforced, I think even more so as a consultant, is as ambiguous as leadership skills and culture are, it's all a process to work on improving it. So I have whether I've been coaching leaders, one-on-one or facilitating a discussion around improvement with a group or, you know, a senior leadership team or group of leaders, is to become really clear about where you are and where you want to be. Whether it's where are you today and where do you want to be in three or five years, what's the gap? And then thinking about what do we need to do between now and then to close the gap to get to where you want to be. And I think when you have clear pictures of this is what's happening today and what we want it to be like, then I think the path becomes really clear because you can see is it a structural issue?
Michelle DiTondo (22:49):
Is it communication issue? Is it, uh, you know, consistency of feedback issue. I think looking at A to B, seeing where the gaps are makes it really clear what you need to do over that course of time to get you from A to B. And so, you know, that's where I would start. I think so many organizations or leaders jump into the middle of just doing and, you know, executing on a plan to think of ideas of how do we increase retention or reduce turnover or develop succession plans or have more leaders that are emotionally intelligent. They just dive into the middle of the action plan without thinking about where are we now and where do we want to be?
Troy Blaser (23:31):
What are some, what are some ways to, to help determine where are we now?
Michelle DiTondo (23:37):
I, you know, I tend to use collecting of feedback or doing interviews. And I think in organizations, I think there's more, um, commonality than you would assume. If you ask people, describe this workplace today and describe where you would like it to be three, five years from now, choose, you know, a date, there's more commonality than you would assume. And, you know, you could see that with, with workplaces online, uh, with online reviews. If you look at a series, and I've done this with organizations that I've worked with to look at their online reviews through, you know, LinkedIn or Glassdoor or whatever. Uh, but there's commonality in experience even when people work across divisions or in different locations, look at what's most common that, that would be your here stage. Like, this is what it's like to work here today. And then I, you know, I think it's important for leaders especially to buy in to where we want it to be, because they're the ones that are gonna be responsible for executing how people are made to feel in the organization, what's the employee experience. And so leaders at least have to agree this is what we want it to be and why. And, you know, you could use employee feedback to help to paint the clarity of the picture of both where you are and where you want to be. But I think having those clear pictures, like a, a vision of the future and a picture of the current state i, I think is critical before you jump into action planning.
Troy Blaser (25:13):
I really like that. I think too, having a clear, a clear picture of where we are, a clear vision of where we want to go for everyone in the company who's not a leader, that can provide clarity. It can provide motivation because people like the feeling of, oh, my leaders, they've got something in mind. They know where they want to go it sounds good to me. So I'm on board with it because they've, they've figured that out and they've communicated it clearly, you know, down to me kind of in the trenches. So, so I'm ready and willing to pitch in kind of.
Michelle DiTondo (25:45):
And you know, I, I think when we, when organizations start to create, whether it's a vision statement or purpose or whatever, there's can be some risk of people assuming there's some hypocrisy if you say, this is the type of workplace we want to be without saying we're not there yet, I think you can gain a lot of credibility to say, this is who we want to be, but we know we're not there yet, which is why we're doing X, Y, and Z. Versus, you know, having a statement that says teamwork and collaboration and inclusion. And people are like, where is that? Because that's not the place that I work. So, you know, understanding your current state I think gives you an opportunity to be vulnerable and to say, this might be where we are today, but this is where we want to be, why and how we're going to do it. And I, I, again, I think being candid and vulnerable, especially from senior leadership, there is opportunity to gain credibility.
Troy Blaser (26:39):
People appreciate that authenticity to say, you know, we know where we're at and, and we know where we want to go. And those two things are different right now. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, Michelle, this has been a fascinating conversation. It's been interesting to explore these ideas with you. I wonder if people want to know more, if they want to continue the conversation with you, is that something you're open to? How would they connect with you?
Michelle DiTondo (27:02):
Absolutely. And we also have our website and they can find out more about our firm and some of my colleagues. And they could also connect with me through the website as well. And LinkedIn. I'm also on LinkedIn.
Troy Blaser (27:27):
Makes sense. That makes a lot of sense. And we can probably put the, uh, put the website in the show notes so people can go there if they need to. But thank you so much for joining us today. Like I said, it's been fun to talk through these ideas with you and explore some new ideas for me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.
Michelle DiTondo (27:44):
Thank you. Thank you very much and have, have an awesome, awesome day.